The loss of children provides the starting point for both of the major storylines in Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man With the Compound Eyes. One story, about the ritual loss of children, revolves around Atile’i, an Aboriginal teenager who lives on an imaginary, undiscovered island in the South Pacific called Wayo Wayo. Wu renders the island of Wayo Wayo—its flora, fauna, landscape and customs—in a richly poetic style that creates a special brand of magic realism. Deer morph into goats, for example, and as they age, islanders grow “tall like trees” and stick “out their organs of increase like flowers.” Everyone on the island is “skilled at telling diverse stories of the sea.” Ecological events, described in a mystical and surreal way, create the texture of the novel.
All the second sons of Wayo Wayo are sent to sea permanently when they reach their one hundred and eightieth full moon. They cannot bring more than 10 days’ worth of water and they are “not allowed to look back.” This latter description, like many of the phrases in the novel, has both a literal and a metaphoric meaning. The frequency of phrases with double meanings makes the translated text strikingly unstable—like sailing on a strange sea. Atile’i is one of Wayo Wayo’s second sons sent to sea. He is a strong swimmer and plans to survive. He is caught up in a current, and a giant Trash Vortex (a floating trash mountain that the government promises to do something about, but doesn’t) sweeps him into the east coast of Taiwan.
Meanwhile, another storyline follows Alice Shih, a writer and college faculty member who is contemplating suicide. She is grieving the loss of her husband Thom, a Danish man who took to mountain climbing after coming to Taiwan, and her son Toto. Shortly before she meets Atile’i, Alice is thinking: “Bad signs. There had been enough bad signs. Too many. So many they no longer counted.” Alice’s kitten disappears and she is searching for it when a cloud of butterflies rises up and she hears the sound of a muntjac. Shortly after that, she sees Atile’i trapped under rocks and earth. Atile’i remembers the words of an Earth Sage who says if you encounter anything you aren’t able to understand, you should roar “with the strength that lies beside your beating heart and you will speak with the voice of your true self and even evil spirits will flee.” Atile’i tries to roar, but it’s too painful. Alice saves him and they tell each other their stories. After they get to know each other, Atile’i and Alice try to figure out what happened to her son in the mountains.
As the novel progresses, it gathers other plotlines and points of view, including those of Hafay (Alice’s masseuse), Dahu (her friend), Rasula (Atile’I’s girlfriend on Wayo Wayo) and a few others. The chapters about Alice, like those set on Wayo Wayo, produce a feeling of instability and are rich with the sea. At one point, Alice thinks “the sea had been like a random memory” and shortly thereafter she “looked out at the misty sea, as if she was sitting inside the body of some living organism.” At the opening of the novel, the instability is due to a careful and clever use of stacked images. For example, in a paragraph about an earthquake and Alice’s memory of an earlier earthquake, she remembers that five days after the earlier earthquake silkworms that had eaten unwashed mulberry leaves “produced mushy black poops and died, their bodies all shriveled up.” She then observes “An earthquake does not have to kill you to induce mortal terror; it is enough that it can take away something dear to you, leaving nothing but a shriveled skin behind.”
The Man With the Compound Eyes is full of painful, wonderful beauty. Ecological metaphors and imagery abound. They are so rich and so often ambiguous that it feels at times like meaning is capsizing all around the reader. Wu is a writing professor, but he is also an artist and an environmental activist. These different roles fuel much of what is so wonderful about the novel, but they may also serve as a bit of an impediment. At times, the push towards meaning in the environment can be poetic: “The sun appeared as soon as the rain stopped, and the earth had turned to sand. I took it for mist, but if you walked through it would scratch your face.” At other times, Wu missteps. At the end of one chapter, it starts hailing and the hail hits fish leaping out of the water “and in no time the ocean was covered with stunned or lifeless fish. Atile-i was floating in a seething sea of lifeless fish, as if he himself had transformed into an enormous fish.” For those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists or ecologically aware, an image this obvious can feel like preaching to the choir.
Occasionally, too, the novel sags under the weight of loaded meanings. The trash mountain, for example, is made of all the things we keep throwing in the ocean, like slippers, binoculars, and headbands. While reading, I wondered if those of us who want to read novels in which almost all the dramatic events are connected to nature are also the right audience for an environmental story with a clear message about a trash mountain.
In spite of minor reservations, there is great literary power in something so stylistically interesting. This book has made waves in Taiwan and has been recommended by Ursula LeGuin. The author is creating his own genre — not quite the kind of magic realism evoked by Kafka or Marquez or Rushdie, but something lush with poetic weirdness and sharp truths about loneliness, existence, and loss.
Structurally, Wu is playing with the title, arthropods, and ecology. Arthropods have compound eyes that are composed of multiple facets, some of them capable of producing several images per eye. At one point Dahu’s daughter asks Alice, “do different coloured eyes see the world the same way?” Alice responds, “Is there anyone who sees exactly the same thing out of either eye?” Wu applies a compound approach—reminiscent of Cubism—to the book’s structure in order to provide a context for ecological concerns. This approach, in which no single character’s viewpoint is privileged, is a challenging way to tell or understand a story. It is a poet’s approach. We see it occasionally in American novels, but many American novelists who choose this kind of experimentation sink us into a single subject—a family, a school, a town. Wu dares to span the whole world. More often than not, The Man With The Compound Eyes is an entrancing, multi-faceted elegy for a beautiful world like the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo, a lost world, a world we have sent away, a world we need to find and reclaim.